While browsing the internet the other day, I came across a news story about a fourth-grade textbook that described enslaved Black people as “cared for and protected . . . like members of the family.” This is just one of several inaccuracies regurgitated about slavery in children’s text. In January 2016, for instance, Scholastic halted the publication of a children’s book titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington after social media users criticized its oversimplified portrayal of slavery.
Unfortunately, these characterizations of slavery perpetuate the myth of the happy slave. Many of the myths regarding slavery arose during the colonial era as a justification for the treatment of slaves. Others likely result from ignorance of history since most of us only learn about it from biased textbooks.
Slavery in the United States has been followed by a series of events that ultimately has sustained a system of white supremacy and Black oppression. Recognizing that myths about slavery help perpetuate inequality is just the first step to resolving it. Here’s a list of five myths about slavery that many of us need to stop repeating.
1) Slaves Were Happy and Cared For
The myth of the happy slave emerged during the Antebellum period. This pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist propaganda was perpetuated in popular culture and policy. Characters like Aunt Jemima and Mammy, as played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, helped justify the oppression of Black people. Specifically, this myth lent itself to the paternalism used to defend slavery.
The happy slave myth continues today due to a general lack of knowledge about slaves’ firsthand experiences. One notable attempt to interview slaves was the 1937 Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project. This collection of slave narratives contains over 2,000 first-person accounts of slavery.
The interviewees, who knew white people only viewed slavery as bad in terms of specific atrocities, were careful not to reveal the full extent of their experiences. In general, many Black people did conceal their true feelings about racism in the presence of white people, including interviewers. A study by Melvina Johnson Young revealed the respondents shared their feelings more honestly with a Black woman interviewer than with white interviewers, a number of whom were related to former slaveowners. Thus, the positive or neutral attitude associated with the happy slave myth was merely a facade—slaves feigned submission in the presence of white people in order to protect themselves.
2) The ‘Irish Slave’ Myth
Librarian and historian Liam Hogan has written extensively about the use of Irish slavery as a way to silence recognition of the anti-Blackness of racialized slavery. The belief that Irish people were enslaved in the same manner as Africans seems popular among racists on social media. As Hogan writes in a Medium post:
”They do so because they need to ahistorically equate the Irish experience with the African experience in the U.S. to justify their racist propaganda; this spuriously inserts a racial element into Irish indentured servitude which allows them to refer to how a once marginalised ‘white’ group overcame their problems, ‘so why are black people complaining?’”
Attempting to draw parallels between Irish indentured servitude and the enslavement of Africans by Europeans results in a false equivalency that serves to rewrite the historical record for the purpose of justifying anti-Black racism. Also, this position fails to recognize the ways in which the Irish were successfully absorbed into the white establishment.
3) Slavery Only Occurred in the South
This particular myth helps perpetuate the idea that racism in America began and remained in the South. For one, slavery is just one of many atrocities in America’s dark past. Enslavement of Africans, after all, occurred when colonizers started realized they could not continue to enslave Indigenous People. The mass enslavement of Native Americans, which lasted in the Americas for centuries, was too devastating to the Native American people to remain profitable for colonizers. The slavery of Indigenous People, which is often overlooked in this country’s history, was particularly widespread in the southwestern portion of what is now the United States.
Second, slavery did occur throughout the growing nation. Wall Street, the largest financial market in the United States, was once home to New York City’s slave market, which was established in 1711. Slavery was integral to shifting the nation’s economy from agriculture to industrial capitalism.
Just as the South relied on enslaved Black people for agriculture, the North relied on slave labor to establish itself as the industrial center of the continent. For instance, Quakers owned many of the slaves in Pennsylvania during the 1700s. The labor of slaves helped grow their manufacturing sector, including the ironworks and shipbuilding industries.
Slavery wasn’t limited to the coastal states either. During the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800s, white slave owners brought Black slaves to the mines, occasionally promising freedom in exchange for gold.
4) Slavery Ended with the Emancipation Proclamation
Most people have been taught that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Unfortunately, history paints a far more complicated picture.
Many slave owners resisted the Union’s decree, even in the post-Civil War period. Thus, extra steps had to be taken to secure the freedom of formerly enslaved Black people.
For example, in June 1865, Major General Gordon Granger gave a speech in which he reiterated the Emancipation Proclamation. Due to the efforts of white slaveowners, a number of freed Black people only learned of the law on that day, which came to be known as Juneteenth. As Kenneth C. Davis writes:
“The jubilation following Granger’s announcement in Galveston moved across Texas, quickly reaching the state’s 250,000 enslaved people. A year later, a spontaneous holiday called Juneteenth—formed from the words June and nineteenth—began to be celebrated by the newly freed people of Galveston and other parts of Texas.”
Furthermore, Delaware, Kentucky, and Mississippi failed to ratify the 13th amendment until well into the 20th century.
5) Slavery Doesn’t Affect People in the Modern World
A common refrain in discussions about slavery is, “Slavery ended a long time ago, so why are we still talking about it?” This presumes that slavery was the only attempt to subjugate Black people in U.S. history. Yet, the end of slavery was quickly met with continuous and sustained blockades to Black progress.
Reconstruction came after the Civil War and the end of slavery. During this period, Black people should have received reparations, including 40 acres and a mule. Instead, white slave owners received the reparations and Black people were robbed via the defrauding of the Freedman’s Bank, which former slaves used to maintain their collective wealth.
In addition to failing to provide reparations, the end of slavery came with an asterisk. The 13th amendment specifically states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This exception laid the groundwork for the expansion of the convict leasing system. During the 19th century and into the 20th century, Southern states profited from the labor of Black people, many of whom were incarcerated based on “Black Codes.” These codes restricted the agency and freedom of Black people and were enforced by police officers and the white citizens empowered by the law to act as vigilantes.
Reconstruction ended because of Redemption, which refers to the belief of many Southern Democrats that the Republicans and the progress of Reconstruction were corrupt (sound familiar?). Redemption opened the door for Jim Crow laws, which were solidified by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.
During this time, Black people were legally excluded from many of the financial gains and opportunities that the newly emerging industrial economy afforded other Americans. For instance, Black men who fought in World War II did not benefit from the G.I. Bill, which many historians argue is the basis for the formation of the American middle class.
The efforts of Civil Rights leaders ended legal segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Nevertheless, other efforts to continue segregation maintained inequality. Schools were not integrated uniformly throughout the United States, and there were many famous incidents of violence toward the first Black students to attend integrated schools, many of whom are alive today.
For instance, in my hometown of Atlanta, majority-to-minority programs were implemented to bus children from their homes to schools in other neighborhoods in order to achieve diversity. I participated in a similar program from the fourth grade until the day I got a car. I woke up at 5:00 AM and returned home around 5:00 PM for years. Yet, I was still expected to engage in just as many extracurricular activities and perform as well academically as my white peers who lived near the school.
Redlining, the practice of excluding people from an area, created the racial neighborhood divisions that persist today. Since public school resources are often tied to property taxes, this ensured Black neighborhoods did not get access to quality education. The practice was not outlawed until the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Yet, the persistent discrimination against Black Americans did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The following decades would see Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton promote and legitimize the mass incarceration of (mostly) Black and brown offenders based on the War on Drugs rhetoric.
In the present day, we are still in the age of mass incarceration, though social movements like #BlackLivesMatter have brought this reality to the forefront. To argue Black people should get over slavery ignores the reality that much of U.S. history has been about disenfranchising the descendants of former slaves.
Why It’s Important to Get the History of Slavery Right
Any suggestion that slavery didn’t occur in the way that material history proves just makes you a conspiracy theorist (and a racist). There are living breathing descendants of slaves capable of telling the story of their ancestors.
For instance, my family is from Jamaica. I know my father’s ancestors were Maroons, runaway slaves who formed independent communities where they maintain their West African heritage to present day. On my mother’s side, some of my ancestors were of South and East Asian descent because colonialists hired laborers from that region to replace the Black labor force after slavery ended. If slavery and colonialism hadn’t happened in the way historical evidence tells us it did, I wouldn’t be here today.